National Library Unconference Day and #makeithappen: an interview with JP

By Michelle Boule |

I love unconferences. I think that there is something beautiful about people getting together and challenging each other to make something better. For librarians, unconferences are a way to level the playing field among participants and allow everyone with a passion for libraries to raise their voices and ideas. Unconferences are largely unscripted and unpredictable. What is not to love?

John Patrick Porcaro, known as LibrarianJP online and JP to his compadres, along with the 8bitlibrary team, is taking the unconference to a new level. On May 2nd, they are organizing the first ever National Library Unconference Day or #libuncon. The ALA Learning Round Table is sponsoring the event and providing the chat room for the lightening talks. This event includes an impressive list of speakers for the lightening talks and the organizers are hoping to spawn a lot of great conversations in libraryland.

The idea behind Unconference Day is that libraries, organizations, or individuals will plan their own unconference events around the lightening talks, which are scheduled for 2 pm EST on Monday, May 2nd. If you have never participated in an unconference or planned one yourself, this is a great opportunity to see what they’re all about.

I interviewed JP about #libuncon and some of the other fun stuff he is doing. JP has a lot of nice praise for me, but all I did was encourage him in this project and try to spread the word to #makeithappen. Regardless of what he says, it is his drive to #makeithappen that created this event. JP is an amazing guy. He is one of the most positive people I know, a great encourager, and a super cool librarian.

Michelle Boule: JP,  you are one of the founders and bloggers at 8bitlibrary. Why is gaming important to libraries?

JP: is the #makeithappen blog. The goal of the website was to highlight, new, exciting, revolutionary and not-so-revolutionary ways that libraries and librarians engage and connect with their communities. That’s why we say “#makeithappen”: is about taking a good idea and making it happen in libraries. “Video gaming” seems (on the surface) to be what is about, and for good reason: video games are a new, exciting, revolutionary way for libraries to engage library users. Video games have all those storytelling elements that our traditional library books have: narrative devices, character development, imaginative new worlds (or dystopian views on the real world, or historical fiction accounts of real world events, etc etc etc). Video games, as books, tell a story, and that is why they fit in libraries. Libraries have always been a place for storytelling, starting with oral storytelling to babies during a public library storytime program, going all the way up to PhD level in-depth research in academic libraries on the non-fiction stories of history, mathematics, the sciences, liberal arts, etc. From babies to PhDs, libraries are about stories large and small, fiction and non-fiction. Video Games cannot be ignored as one of the main media in which our communities are being told stories, and that is the greatest reason they fit in libraries.

There’s another reason, which is even MORE important that the reason I just gave, as to WHY libraries need video games: video games are social. Video games are fun. The library is a social and fun place which is surrounded by all those terrific storytelling media including books, movies, albums, oral storytelling programs like book groups and baby storytimes, and hopefully they include video games as well.

And. of course, the MOST important reason gaming is important to our users. The Kinect (for Xbox) is in the guinness book of world records as the fastest selling consumer electronic device ever. Not the iPhone, not Google TV, nothing touted by the current “technology in libraries” crowd is more important to our users than video games. And if it’s THAT important, it would be a mistake for us NOT to take video games in libraries as THE MOST important tech issue libraries are facing.


And as long as our users think video games are THAT IMPORTANT that they make Guinness records out of gaming, will also consider video gaming as one of the most important #makeithappen issues facing libraries at least in the near future.   

MB: Why did you decide to plan the National Library Unconference Day?

JP: I never planned to host a “National Library Unconference Day”, but the fact that the event is happening is a true #makeithappen story: I was asked to speak at the CT Library Association conference on Video Gaming as a tool for Community Engagement, Marketing, and Collection Development. I agreed to speak without realizing that MY state library association (where I was planning a half-day unconference session) pushed the date of their conference a few weeks forward.

Now, I had a dilema: quit out on either CLA or NJLA for that day, since they overlapped. But my man Allen McGinley suggested: “why don’t we run a joint session (via skype) between CLA & NJLA that day?” I’d still be able to speak at CT, and me and my CT Library Association friend, Jaime Hammond, would skype some lightning talks into the NJLA Unconference. Both the CLA and NJLA conference committees were enthusiastic over the idea of working together.  

WOW, so now we really had some #makeithappen mojo flowing! And #makeithappen is one of those ideas that says “shoot for the stars” or “think bigger”. So I contact my contributor, mentor, and friend Eli Neiberger and asked him if he’d like to run an unconference in his state and skype in a lightning talk as well. This happened right around the time that he gave the now infamous “Libraries are Screwed” talk for the LJ eBook summit. He agreed in about 10 seconds. Now we’re really onto something, and I find out that my cofounder Justin Hoenke would BE at the NJLA unconference, as would founder and one of the most well-respected ‘tech librarians’ Michael Stephens, so it was a no brainer to have them skype some lightning talks in as well.

So the next obvious step is to just “go national” with this event. It made sense. So I contacted Michelle Boule, the nation’s undisputed expert on unconferencing in libraries, and Janie Hermann of Princeton Public Library and the Board of the ALA Learning Round Table. They decide they love the idea and the LearnRT board approves “National Library Unconference Day ‘11”. And that’s how we got to where we are.  It only happened because of the enthusiasm of everyone involved; they all loved the idea and wanted to see it succeed.

MB: Why an unconference? What is it about the unconference style that you find appealing?

JP: This!

MB: How is the unconference movement important to libraries?

JP: Unconferences are participant-centered. The unconference, as an idea, is one that says “our community’s ideas, tag-teamed with the in-depth information literacy knowledge of librarians, results in better outcomes than ideas that come out of the closed loops of librarian circles”. It also acknowledges that all librarians are experts on many things: I, for instance, pride myself as being the “world’s expert on Pokemon in libraries”. And every person on our library staff is really INTO something, whether it be American Idol, the NFL, Hip-Hop music, street art, knitting, Jersey Shore, steampunk fiction, comic books, video games, or a myriad of things I personally can’t even think of because it’s not part of my personal world experience. The unconference recognizes the diversity and world experience of everyone who works in libraries, and takes all that knowledge, remixes it, mashes it up, and results in amazing revolutionary new ideas for the future of libraries.

MB: What are you hoping happens on #libuncon?

A very honest thing I have to say is: I hope people actually participate. There was not much time to plan or market this event, and it’s an event that you can find lots of things about it to nitpick or attack. It could be a much more traditionally successful event if I had a year.

But whether I had the time to plan it or not, the measure of success for this event will be this simple: one good idea. One good idea can change the world. What one good idea will completely change your organization? Let’s work together and find it.

And what I really like that there will be in-person unconferences in Michigan, Mississippi, California, and New Jersey (more to be announced!). Some of those people will be tweeting their good ideas with the #libuncon hashtag, where those ideas will take on a life and discussion of their own on Twitter (so in-person is influencing the digital stuff, and digital is then influencing the in-person stuff). All that, combined with the fact that we all have a common “starting point” with the set of lightning talks by librarians in 3 different states, means that we’re all folding the same initial ideas into the discussions and uncon sessions that will follow. It’s truly the first national library mashup of ideas.

MB: There are going to be lightening talks in the middle of the the day. What will be the format of the lightening talks? What kinds of topics are the speakers going to cover?

JP: Our lightning talkers are experts on a certain somethings, as we all are! So they’ll get around 8-10 mins each to say what they have to say. There won’t be Q and A, because I want the Q and A to happen amongst the uncon-ers and not the “experts” (because we’re all experts!). I really want the lightning talks to be looked at as diving boards that the participants use to jump in the pool of ideas and conversations. I did suggest a few ideas I’d like to hear from the lighting talks, but in true uncon fashion, I'm letting them decide on the topic; they can talk on whatever they want!

Anyone who is watching these talks, whether alone in their office or as a group in a locally planned uncon, needs to go to this link to join the “webinar” room.

MB: How can libraries get involved in #libuncon and plan their own unconference? Can individual librarians or other small groups participate?

JP: Set aside time on Monday May 2nd, at 1pm EDT (12pm Chicago “ALA” time, 10am West Coast time!). Get some librarians together to watch the lighting talks. After that, discuss issues! Do it with your staff as a staff development day. Get some library school students together and do it in the student lounge. If I was running the damn thing, I’d make a facebook event, invite all my local librarian friends, go to a bar with wifi, watch the lightning talks then discuss our locals issues, tweet some new ideas with hashtag #libuncon, and share good times and drinks. My friend Jenn Wann is having libraries all over Mississippi organizing regional uncons to screen the talks and then uncon for the rest of the day!

If there’s not enough time for you plan a formal event, you could also watch the lighting talks like you’d watch a webinar from your office, and then participate in the twitter chat #libuncon and the real-time uncon at  which will begin at the same time as the lightning talks!!

And don’t forget that if you are planning your own uncon, you can have YOUR participants give lighting talks in their individual uncons! Tap the knowledge of everyone involved, because they’re all important.

MB: Will the lightening talks be archived anywhere?

JP: I will have to find out, but we are using the ALA’s iLinc system, and I believe they archive these talks if you’d like to plan an uncon at a different time/date.

MB: Anything else you want to add?

JP: Libraries are about the community, with a few “experts” we call Librarians. Unconferences are  about community learning, with a few “experts” who give little speeches and such. This is why this is a the perfect learning fit and why you should consider participating.